AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers: India crippled by personnel and tactics as Kyrgyz Republic loss raises important questions
The result against Kyrgyz Republic was a sign of things to come, the calibre of opponents will only get tougher in the Asian Cup. The challenges will only become more daunting.
India's deserved loss to Kyrgyz Republic was one that had been coming for some time. Yes, the team had been on a 13-match unbeaten run. Yes, the team had won four out of their five matches in the Asian Cup Qualifiers.
And yet, most fans who had been watching the team for the past year wouldn't have been surprised by the outcome. In fact, most would have seen it coming.
This fixture against the White Falcons was one that had always been earmarked as an extremely tough encounter. Not just because of the presence of players like Anton Zemlianukhin, whose flair, pace and power on the left flank made him an incredibly tough player to control, but because for the entirety of Stephen Constantine's second tenure as coach of India, the team has lacked an identity.
There has been one big reason behind a lot of wins the team accrued in the past year under Constantine (a year in which they went unbeaten) — Sunil Chhetri. He was not on the pitch against Kyrgyz Republic and his absence brought to light how unprepared India are as a team to evolve and how Constantine's team selections fail to beget belief.
The questions have been asked many times in the past and Tuesday night's loss will just add to that barrage. Why did the squad have only one right-back in it? Players like Rahul Bheke and Sarthak Golui, who impressed in the Indian Super League, were not in the squad. Why were players like Mohammed Rafique and Alen Deory selected despite their dismal form in the I-League this season? What is the point of having two leagues running simultaneously if the national team selection doesn't involve some of the consistently good Indian players?
These question marks will continue to persist, but what has been consistent during all these seemingly tough to fathom squad selections has been the clear lack of any sort of tactical approach to games. So far the strategy in these past three years has been — defend for your lives, lump the ball forward and see what comes of it. What generally happens is while all that is going on, Chhetri decides to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, initiates an attack and usually, provides the decisive finishing touch to ensure a win for India.
This is not an attempt to absolve the players of their responsibilities. Not at all. There were some dismal performances against Kyrgyz Republic, especially from the likes of Sandesh Jhingan and Udanta Singh, both of who are an integral part of India's young core. Their decision-making was poor and it seemed like the team had a bunch of strangers playing.
Lalruatthara, a natural left-back, was played as the makeshift right-back, and was made to suffer on his debut, as he had to go up against Zemlianukhin. Rafique couldn't stay on his feet, literally, as he kept falling over repeatedly and when in possession, was wasteful. The Indians lacked the intensity to keep up with the Kyrgyz players and when they did try to create anything resembling a goalscoring opportunity, their final pass was poor.
With the team possessing natural width in the form of Udanta, and attacking options on the left like Bikash Jairu and Holicharan Narzary, the Blue Tigers' best bet would have been to get the ball down the flanks and allow their wingers to use their pace and power to fashion goalscoring opportunities for Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh. Instead, the team's modus operandi was to play long balls and with the team under the cosh for big chunks of the match, they always lacked numbers going forward when the strikers did manage to win their aerial duels.
Despite all the gloom, there was a silver lining for India from the match on Tuesday night and that was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The goalkeeper was a pillar of strength, making multiple good saves, using his height and reach to great effect. He was composed when catching crosses and high balls, quick to come off his line when needed and decisive with his saves. After Chhetri, he has been the country's second-most consistent player in the last year-and-a-half, and has grown by leaps and bounds as a personality who can inspire his teammates.
India ended their Asian Cup qualification process with four wins, a draw and a loss, and most importantly, booked their place in the 2019 Asian Cup. They managed to top their group as well, which was another good achievement. However, their loss brought to the fore many questions which have been on everyone's minds for a long time now. And it's time coach Constantine starts getting the answers to some of those.
Yes, the team have progressed to the Asian Cup. Yes, the unbeaten run did give the players confidence. Yes, the rise in rankings added to the positivity around the camp. On the other hand, qualification to the Asian Cup was aided in big part by the fact that the competition was increased to 24 teams from 16. India did play a lot of matches against weaker opponents in the past year. So, the perception of the situation as glass half-empty instead of half-full is justified.
The result against Kyrgyz Republic was a sign of things to come, the calibre of opponents will only get tougher in the Asian Cup. The challenges will only become more daunting. The country's talisman, Chhetri, has indicated that he might consider retirement in 2019, a year in which he would be turning 35. Having just signed an extension, only time will tell how Constantine plans on ensuring the team's growth and evolution in time for the next World Cup qualification campaign.
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